The Far-Off Future of Renewables
The future “stock” of renewable technologies, with reasons for their upsides and downsides
Photovoltaics have almost limitless growth potential, while wind energy’s growth will be decent, and biomass growth will be small. These are my major predictions for the future growth of renewables. In addition, lithium-ion batteries will be superseded by solid-state batteries for cars, and molten-salt for utility scale batteries, while hydrogen fuel cells will be the dominant mode of larger-than-auto vehicles (trucks, planes, military equipment). Less-tillage/hothouse ag/aquaculture will become the dominant ag modes, while biogas/hydrogen/CCS/CCU natural gas green blends will replace natural gas (in a nod to powerful energy companies…perhaps not what should happen but more what will happen). The specifics and my reasonings are as follows:
Photovoltaics: Future Stock Way Up. There is already a debate on whether “rooftop solar” is efficient enough to provide a viable energy source, since things like desert photovoltaic arrays are so much more “grid-scale” efficient. Rooftop solar for the moment has done a good job of popularizing photovoltaics, and could move into a useful area of “micro-grids”, which could be largely self-sufficient and provide local jobs and control. However, with photovoltaics about to become 30% efficient or more (due to the development of perovskites) along with HVDC networks and large molten-salt batteries, look for the grid-scale installations to be dominant. Look at it this way, there is a lot of desert area in North America, North Africa, and Mongolia, which would provide almost limitless growth. Add to this the potential unfurling of gigantic photovoltaic arrays in space (with energy microwaved to Earth) and photovoltaics are poised to be dominant, and once the energy storage problems are solved, nothing else really comes close. Actually, if photovoltaics are placed in space (where the sun shines 24/7), there may not BE storage issues. (Hughes, Soldini, 2020)
Wind Energy: Future Stock Up: This has decent growth potential with the development of larger wind chargers and offshore installations. However, the siting potential is not as limitless as photovoltaics, nor will the future prices of wind energy be competitive with solar (due to the increased complexities of siting and maintaining equipment). For the near-term, wind energy will prosper due to the imminence of the global warming problem.
Lithium-Ion Batteries: Future stock Down (but Solid-State Battery and Supercapacitor stock up): Despite Elon Musk’s statements (he being heavily invested in lithium ion), these batteries have some well-known issues, the relative environmental degradation of lithium and cobalt mining and lack of recycling, and the relative inefficiency of the battery (compared to newer battery technologies in development). Lithium-metal is the big hope for the near future, and the use of more common anode metals (such as nickel, manganese, magnesium, or iron) and perhaps 80% recycling of battery materials, in addition to 500 miles/rapid charge may be on their way. Solid-state batteries (perhaps glass/sodium, safer, with 3x higher energy densities) and Supercapacitors (which store electrical, not chemical energy) are the hopes of the farther off future. (dnv.com, 2020),(Kerns,2015)
Methane gas: Future Stock Even: Some articles talk about the quaintness of using methane gas mined from cow manure (and more likely swamps or landfills) as a future biogas fuel. However, direct use of methane gas is problematic, since it can contain sulfurs and CO2, which need to be “scrubbed” before they are burned by engines. This puts natural methane on par with natural gas (which is more easily produced), with both begging for an economical Carbon Capture process to make them “green”. A corollary may be that as ice melts, it may release previously trapped methane or methane-ice deposits, which we may be forced to capture and utilize as a preventative. (Chandler, 2017),(Henriques, 2018)
Burning of Biomass: Future Stock Even: In light of recent forest fires, one might ask “shouldn’t we remove the biomass buildup in forests before it becomes fuel for massive, uncontrolled forest fires?” The answer would of course be “yes”, provided it was done in such a way to not destroy critical habitat. Burning this biomass is thought to be “carbon-neutral” since the carbon released by the burn was sequestered by the tree. However, this seems a short-term solution as there are finite amounts of biomass, plus the magnitude and imminence of global warming may require an expensive carbon-capture solution. (McFarland, 2018)
Hydrogen Fuel: Future Stock Way Up: Society is waking up to the limitations of battery powered EVs (pretty much great for smaller cars and planes, limited elsewhere). Hydrogen fuel-cells are a great (and clean) way to power larger vehicles and planes, due to much greater energy densities and less-weight. Fuel cells need to come down in price and more fueling stations need to be built to make hydrogen fuel-cells commonplaces in vehicles. In addition, hydrogen could be cleanly made from natural gas using carbon-capture, and blended with natural gas and/or biogas in existing pipelines as a transitional energy source. (Fialka, 2020)
Natural Gas: Future Stock Up: Just as every green person is dogpiling on natural gas, its proponents are saying “Wait! Natural Gas is much cleaner than coal, is easily transported, can be converted to hydrogen, and could possibly be mined methane-free and scrubbed of CO2…don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”. As such, it is the perfect transition fuel, to a time when everything is photovoltaic (in perhaps 50 years?)
Molten-salt Batteries: Future Stock Up: Made with cheaper materials, and conducive to large-scale utility, or rocket usage. (Blaine, 2018)
Nuclear Power: Future Stock Even: Even though redesigned nuclear power plants (using modern electronics and liquid sodium instead of water) would seem to be a great transitional energy source (at a time when there is about to be great demand for electricity), people can’t seem to see past Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima. (Parnell, 2020)
Non-Tillage Agriculture: Future Stock Up: This would involve drilling small holes in the soil to plant crops (with cheap sensors that meter water and fertilizer in just the right amounts) with cover crops in between. With current tillage methods, too-much carbon-soaking plant material is removed unnecessarily (since currently, “weeds” compete with crops for water and fertilizer). If water/fertilizer were better directed and plants had sheaths to protect themselves from competing plants, much of this massive tillage would be unnecessary. (no-tillfarmer.com, 2015)
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS): Future Stock Down: Carbon Capture and Storage was a big deal about 10 years ago, and the Obama administration (along with then-VP Biden) were talking it up as a way to produce “clean” fossil-fuels. Even Trump picked up some of these talking points when he touted “clean coal” (coal scrubbed of CO2, before or after burning). Since, there have been questions raised about the viability of storing CO2 underground (leakage? cost?) and more importantly, the lack of business incentives for doing so. It would probably take a carbon-tax of around $50/ton of CO2 produced (about $0.50/gallon of gas, or $0.05 kWh for metered electricity) with a requirement for CCS paid for with the proceeds, to get the job done. Many think that renewables/energy storage will take hold before carbon tax/CCS becomes commercial, simply because the renewable energy business apparently needs less subsidy, may have unlimited growth potential, plus less risk. (energy.gov, n.d.)
Carbon Capture and Utilization (CCU): Future Stock Even: It is not presently clear whether there are sufficient uses for captured CO2, to make this a viable industry (despite many years of research). Currently, the proposals for CO2 reuse center around fertilizer, building materials, enhanced fuel exploration, synthetic fuels, plastics manufacture, and industrial carbonation. Honestly though, CO2 is so abundant that it would take a herculean effort to sequester enough to put a dent in the problem. Technologies are improving, however, and the best hopes seem to lie with enhanced plant growth using CO2 (ie CO2 infused hothouses and algae ponds), concrete aggregate and cement production, and polymer production. CO2 can also be infused in fossil fuel strata to push out oil/natural gas, or combined with hydrogen to make synthetic fuels. However, since we are trying to get away from fossil fuels and can directly burn hydrogen, this seems a bit like a dog chasing his own tail. Like CCS, CCU will likely need a carbon tax subsidy to keep it ahead of renewables. (Roberts, 2019)
Hydroelectric Power: Future Stock Down: As much as we all want to like power created from water from dams powering turbines, dams are expensive to build and maintain, plus they are falling out of favor environmentally since they negatively effect wildlife habitats (especially for fish). “Microdams” may be the mode of the future, with less energy-creating potential. (Cafasso,2020),(worldbank.org,2016)
Devices that remove Carbon from the Atmosphere: Future Stock Up: Whether these are machines sucking carbon from the air, oceans peppered with iron to encourage carbon soaking ocean biomass, or Bill Gate’s cloud-created cooling, the imminent problems of global warming may be beyond our ability to replace current energy tech fast enough. (Brigham, 2019)
Enjoy these other Vern Scott Energy and Transportation Articles:
What a National Infrastructure Upgrade Should Be
Energy Efficiency, Not Warming, will Sell Renewables
CO2 Contribution will Destroy our Planet-or Maybe Not!
Affordable 3D Printed Structures
Who Will Invent the Catalytic Converter of the Global Warming Age?